After looking at the East Region for the first round, we move over to the Midwest Region, where #1 seed Kansas will hope to meet up with #2 Louisville later this month for a shot at the Final Four.
This is a very loaded region, even beyond the top two seeds, as Oregon is a very dangerous 3-seed, #4 seed Purdue was a strong team in the Big 10 and as shaky as #9 seeded Michigan State has been, they’re never to be fully written off with living legend Tom Izzo leading the way.
That’s only a handful of teams, too, so the first round promises to be a wild ride in the Midwest region. Let’s take a look at the opening round matchups and gauge who has the best chance to advance to round two this weekend:
Kansas (1) vs. North Carolina Central/U.C. Davis (16)
The first round looks to get started off easy enough for the Jayhawks, who experts can’t seem to agree on. The consensus #1 team for much of the year, Kansas either looks like a Final Four lock to some, or could be ousted as early as round two by Miami.
History suggests they won’t trip up in round one, of course, as no #1 seeds have lost yet to a 16-seed. It’s possible the Jayhawks could actually have their work cut out for them a bit if North Carolina Central advances, though, simply because the Eagles defend at a high level (22nd best defense in the country) and also hit the glass very well (38th in rebounding).
It’s arguable those stats won’t mean much against Kansas, who has superior coaching, overall talent, depth and certainly can rumble when it comes to size and strength. Josh Jackson is a future pro in the waiting, but he’s probably destined for a deep run. No matter which team faces Kansas in round one, they’re not winning.
North Carolina Central
Miami (8) vs. Michigan State (9)
The Midwest region might get very difficult right away, as many college basketball experts love the University of Miami here, but betting against the Spartans during the Big Dance is often risky. Even when Michigan State has had some shakier runs, they’ve still found a way to make some noise during March Madness, reaching the second round or further in 7 of their last 9 tries.
The most recent two seasons have had Izzo’s club going one and done, but it’s going to be awfully tough to vote Michigan State out of round one for a third straight year, regardless of what the data suggests. Adding to Michigan State’s case here is their usual brutal schedule and some big wins over Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan, not to mention close losses to Arizona and Duke.
While most will feel the urge to support Izzo and the Spartans, we should consider how good Miami can be. The Hurricanes are a very real threat here, as they come out of an equally tough conference in the ACC (it’s actually much tougher by comparison to the Big 10), yet they have the more impressive resume with a stingier defense and big wins over both North Carolina and Duke.
Miami is just as battle tested as Michigan State and they do offer a strong defense, but they don’t light the world ablaze offensively. The dividing line here is coaching, while the Spartans are young but stacked with tantalizing athletic talent. If we’re headed for a defensive battle, it’s quite arguable whether Michigan State’s athleticism could win out.
Iowa State (5) vs. Nevada (12)
After reaching the Sweet 16 in two of their last three trips to March Madness, the Iowa State Cyclones could be looking to do even more damage this year. One of the most explosive offenses (25th in the nation) in college basketball will surely have a chance to do that, but will have to thwart off a pesky Nevada team first in round one.
Iowa State could be forced to face some troubling seed history in round one, as a #12 seed has failed to win at least one NCAA tourney game just four times since 1985. That doesn’t mean the Wolfpack are destined to get one of those wins, but Nevada certainly figures to be in a solid spot to seek an upset. Nevada (28-6) are just as deadly as Iowa State (80 points per game) on offense, and they’ve also actually been quite battle tested on the year (29 RPI).
The main difference is the high level competition, with Nevada facing zero Top 25 teams, while the Cyclones just got done taking the nets down as Big 12 tournament champions. Iowa State’s resume is a little more impressive on the surface, while it’s going to be awfully tough to deny a team that ranked 14th at converting the deep ball on the year. Nevada can still potentially match Iowa State at their own game, but the Cyclones’ experience should win out here in the end.
Purdue (4) vs. Vermont (12)
The Boilermakers are going to be the knee-jerk reaction here for most people. Purdue hails from the Big 10, went a solid 25-7 and sports one of the best offenses in the nation (80 points per game), but Vermont is on a 21-game winning streak and was even more dominant (29-5) during their regular season tear.
Vermont’s competition wasn’t nearly as intense (RPI rank of 46) and they aren’t quite as potent offensively, but the Catamounts did offer up the nation’s 16th best scoring defense. Their ability to lock down on opponents makes Vermont an interesting upset play, while they’ll be shooting for their first NCAA tournament win since beating Syracuse back in 2005.
While Vermont could be a trendy pick due to their dominance in the AEC and their top level defense, shutting down a good Purdue squad is a tall order.
Creighton (6) vs. Rhode Island (11)
One of the worst matchups of the opening round lies in the Midwest region when Creighton battles Rhode Island. The Rams get by on stellar team defense (29th in the nation), but stifling the hot-shooting Bluejays is quite the task. Creighton has been a mainstay in the NCAA tourney, and will come in both experienced and ready to rock as one of the country’s top offenses.
It’s certainly worth considering if Rhode Island’s defense will show up here, but their shot-blocking is a huge asset that could go wasted against the perimeter oriented Bluejays. Creighton finished the season as the 21st best offense in the nation and ranked 17th in three-point percentage. Creighton leaves a lot to be desired as a rebounding and defensive squad, but they’re 3rd in efficiency and are a lot to handle on the defensive end. Odds are Creighton gets buckets as they please and Rhode Island’s inconsistent offenses loses out here.
Oregon (3) vs. Iona (14)
This feels like one of the easier first round matchups to call. Iona does potentially give Oregon matchup problems as a very prolific offensive team, but they can’t match the Ducks’ ability to defend. This could certainly be a running match with outside shooting being the difference-maker, but Oregon has more experience, has faced tougher competition and can easily match Iona’s offense due to the Gaels’ inability to defend.
A closer look reveals Oregon’s RPI (9) is way more competitive (Iona’s is 89), while both teams put up around 80 points per game. Iona gives up over 76 points per game on the other end, however, while Oregon is actually a strong defensive team given the way they play. Oregon could choose to trade baskets in a high-scoring affair, but they’re more disciplined than that. Instead, Iona’s hot shooting could keep them around through the first half, but Oregon’s defense and superior talent should decide this thing around the 10 minute mark in the second half.
Michigan (7) vs. Oklahoma State (10)
The Wolverines will put their Big 10 resume to the rest in the first round, when they try to slow down the high-flying Cowboys. OK State comes in as one of the best offenses in the nation (6th in scoring) and can fire away from long range. If the Cowboys get off to a hot start, it’s worth wondering if Michigan will be able to keep up with them.
As explosive as Oklahoma State can be, it’s not like they’re invincible. The Cowboys did lose 12 games on the year due to horrendous defense, while they also didn’t bring their best game against elite competition (just 1-9 against Top 25 teams). Michigan can also get hot from deep, while their perimeter defense helps make them a fairly balanced and underrated group. If the Wolverines can bring the offense and keep Oklahoma State from connecting all day from beyond the arc, they have a real chance to escape round one.
Louisville (2) vs. Jacksonville State (15)
The last game on the Midwest region docket has the #2 seeded Cardinals trying to move on past a pesky Jacksonville State squad. Nothing really stands out for the Gamecocks, who probably need to execute a flawless game plan just to avoid a blowout in this one. Jacksonville State has shown marginal defensive ability, but they struggle to produce offense consistently and aren’t a fun upset after losing 14 times this year.
Rick Pitino is an easy coach to get behind when it comes to March Madness, and his Louisville squad looks like a potential title contender thanks to a strong offense and a suffocating defense. The Cardinals ended the year ranked 38th in scoring defense, but when they’re on they can also put up a ton of points. Temp control could be the key in this one, as Jacksonville State can’t hang if they game gets/stays fast. Louisville’s defense is tough to get around, regardless, adding another roadblock for the Gamecocks.
That does it for our look at the Midwest region. We don’t foresee a ton of crazy upsets in round one from this part of the tourney, but there certainly are a few spots where it could come down to the wire. Be careful as to where you pick those upsets in your own bracket, but regardless how you pick your outcomes, we wish you luck!
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